Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Identity Snatchers They Take Your Name, Your Credit, and Then `Nobody Believes You'

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Identity Snatchers They Take Your Name, Your Credit, and Then `Nobody Believes You'

Article excerpt

William Dwyer lost his identity in 1994 at a Hollywood, Fla., used-car dealership in which he had never set foot.

That year, authorities told him, someone at the dealership probably dialed into the Equifax credit reporting bureau's computers and rifled through electronic credit reports, looking for a good target.

The thief settled on Dwyer, an aerospace engineer for NASA in Houston. He copied Dwyer's private information and sold it to a Nigerian organized crime ring. "They got my Social Security number, and they were off to the races," Dwyer said. Dwyer became the victim of one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation - identity theft. Over the next four years the personal data about Dwyer and his wife, Sandy, were used to obtain 42 credit cards. The ghost Dwyers racked up charges throughout South Florida totaling $35,000. They bought everything from gas to groceries, leaving bill collectors to hound the real Dwyers. The ordeal came to an end this year, Dwyer said, after the couple filed suit against more than 20 creditors for negligence in issuing the cards. "People don't believe you," Dwyer said. "That was the worst part. They treated you like you were some sort of real, slick crook." With a Social Security number and a few facts, thieves can appropriate identities to apply for drivers licenses, telephone lines, car loans and charge cards, or to steal benefits such as pensions and Social Security payments. By one industry estimate, about 1,000 people a day in the United States fall victim to the crime. As personal information becomes easier to disseminate via computer and more widely available to criminals, politicians are calling for new privacy protections. They include banning the sale of credit headers, the identifying data used by credit rating firms, prohibiting the sale of Social Security numbers and making identity theft a specific federal crime. In early August, President Bill Clinton signed a related law barring Internal Revenue Service employees from snooping through tax files without a legitimate reason. As politicians debate solutions, they're looking to the companies profiting from personal data. Those companies range from Atlanta-based Equifax to Database Technologies in Pompano Beach, Fla. The companies argue that the benefits they provide, such as easy credit and fraud-fighting tools, far outweigh the risks of inadvertently assisting identity thieves. Florida police say the crime of stealing someone's name and credit is so common that officers can do little except shrug. When a report comes in about unauthorized utility hookups or charge-card applications, they file the crime report and hope a lead drops out of the sky, said Ed Madge, who supervises the economic crimes unit for the Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. Unless the criminal is caught in the act of using the fraudulent documents, the cost and effort of an investigation is too much for the scale of the nonviolent crime, police say. "They usually get away with it - and it ruins people's credit for the rest of their lives," Madge said. Thieves obtain personal data in many ways, he said. Some thieves have stolen bills from a mailbox or pulled receipts from the garbage. …

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